Michael J. Sacopulos, Esq.

A New York trial court judge received word that a juror had conducted some independent research during the trial by performing “google” searches on the parties. Upon questioning, the juror admitted that he had “googled” the parties and gave the excuse that he was “curious.” Apparently he wasn’t the only curious juror. The trial court judge went on to question the remaining jurors. Eight of his fellow jurors also admitted to conducting independent internet searches. That is nine (9) out of the twelve (12) jurors. The judge was forced to declare a mistrial. This is not an isolated incident. In another case, a juror was uncertain whether a defendant was guilty or not. What did she do? She conducted a poll on her Facebook page. This also resulted in a mistrial.

The social media revolution has inflamed other aspects of the trial process. Attorneys now devote effort to reviewing the other party’s social media use. Information that you post for friends or colleagues may well end up as a piece of evidence in a trial. A simple rant posting following an unpleasant appointment or difficult staff encounter reported in a Tweet could end up as a line of questioning in your deposition or trial. Social media sites have become a new frontier for lawyers to explore in litigation so be careful what you post.

Here are some tips on how to protect yourself:

Own your name as a domain name: Log onto websites like 1and1.com or godaddy.com and buy the domain name of your private and practice names. Domain names typically cost around $7.99 a year. It is a small price to pay if a patient or competitor of yours decides they want to own your cyber identity. It may also be wise to buy pejorative derivatives of your name; for example: drjoesmithsucks.com.

Electronically Monitor Your Online Reputation: This is as simple as going to Google Alerts and type in your name. Medical Justice offers a much more specialized search service; notifying you “as-it-happens” when your name or your practice name is mentioned on the web. This allows you to react to any positive or negative comments in a timely manner.

Have your employees sign a social media policy: Defining what your employees can and cannot do both in the workplace and at home, needs to be spelled out. If you fire an employee for something they’ve said online, that needs to be spelled out in your own company’s policy or you could be subject to a wrongful termination suit. These policies have become standard for larger institutions and help properly set expectations as to how staff and employees will use the internet.

Separate your personal social media activities from your professional activities: Healthcare providers should maintain both personal and professional social media accounts. If you are worried about having to log in and out of multiple accounts a day you can use programs like hootsuite.com or tweetdeck.com to manage your accounts. Different accounts keep your personal and professional lives separate. Friending patients may cross professional boundaries. There are also issues with HIPAA and the HITECH Act when communicating with your patients online so be careful. A common professional way for physicians to stay in touch with patients is to start a fan page. Search Fan Page on Facebook and they will provide you with step-by-step instructions to start one.

Encourage patients to review your practice online via rating sites: Physicians like yourself probably have hundreds if not thousands of patients but the truth is only a couple of them have taken time to review you online. The simple fact is the majority of your patients like you, but the few who don’t let their voices be heard by reviewing you on multiple rating sites. Those reviews could cast you in a negative light to potential patients. To brighten the scope of your image, find ways to encourage your patients to rate you online. More accurate reviews will help marginalize negative outliers. Medical Justice’s new eMerit program can assist you in this endeavor

In a very real sense, a defendant’s online reputation can become a major witness in his or her trial. While many physicians view the importance of their online reputation in terms of practice development and patient volume, they should be concerned for a whole other reason. Anyone engaged in litigation would be wise to begin taking action to address his or her online reputation.